Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Years in Review: 1974-1978

I've given up on Daniel Lawrence's DND, so it's time to take a look back at the years leading up through 1978.  It's been a long time getting here: I've been at this blog for about five years, and while I have covered about five years worth of games it feels like I'm making slow progress. Nevertheless, this is a good time to look back, take stock, and consider where the blog is heading in the future.

When looking back at this era and determining the highlights, it's important to remember that there's a huge technological gulf between the mainframes that the earliest games were developed on, and the home computers that games were being created on starting in 1978. Because of that I'm going to split them up by technology, as well as by genre.


It's pretty safe to say that the bulk of the time I've spent on this blog has been taken up by mainframe CRPGs, particularly those on the PLATO system: DND and Moria took me a year each to complete.  By the standards of the time, these are staggeringly large games, complex in a way that home computers wouldn't be able to match until the late 1980s at the earliest. Of all the surprising things I've learned during the course of this blog, I think the most surprising has been that the earliest CRPGs were far from primitive compared to things like Ultima and Wizardry. And yes, I'm aware that these games were developed over many years, but for the most part the ones that I played were fully formed by the late 1970s.

There are two distinct lines of influence in this era. First was the line of top down, iconographic games started with The Dungeon (aka pedit5), and continuing through The Game of Dungeons and Orthanc. The second was the line of first-person 3D games that started with Moria, and was continued with Oubliette.  The top-down line continues on into the 1980s with things like Telengard, but eventually it peters out. I suppose that Ultima could be considered as part of that line, but Richard Garriott has always said that he developed his games on his own, and any resemblances are purely superficial.  Rogue has some similarities, but that game's creators have also denied being influenced.  The third-person 3D line is far more influential, being an obvious ancestor to the Wizardry series, which in turn led to such varied games as Bard's Tale, Dungeon Master, and some of the most important Japanese RPGs.

It's pretty obvious that all of these games were an attempt to recreate the seminal tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. As if the number of these games with the DND filename wasn't proof enough, the mechanics are often drawn directly from that game.  But while the mechanics are drawn from D&D, the ability to craft an emergent narrative that's inherent to that game was still beyond the technology of the 1970s. The PLATO CRPGs are all very much lacking when it comes to plot, setting, and characters, and it will be a very long time before games can mimic any of D&D's elements beyond exploration and combat.

I'm slightly torn when it comes to picking a Mainframe CRPG of 1974-1978. The Game of Dungeons v5.4, with a rating of 54, would be the obvious choice. It's certainly the PLATO CRPG that I enjoyed playing the most, and by far the best of the top-down line. And yet, Moria and Oubliette are much more influential games. I can rule out Moria pretty safely, for being far too empty.  But Oubliette is a different story, with a sizable yet manageable dungeon that's full of tricks and traps. Where Oubliette falls down is the lack of a modern community: it lives and dies on its multiplayer capabilities. If I were to go back and play in the 1970s, I've little doubt that Oubliette would be the game of the era. But from a modern perspective, and as a solo experience, The Game of Dungeons v5.4 is the superior game, and I have to reluctantly go with it.

Mainframe CRPG of 1974-1978: The Game of Dungeons v5.4


When it comes to adventure gaming in this era, there's no escaping the influence of Colossal Cave Adventure. Every game that comes after it bears its influence in one form or another, to the point where "adventure" is the name of the whole genre.

There aren't obvious lines of influence with adventure games as there are with CRPGs (although that could be my relative lack of knowledge when it comes to those two genres).  But there are many games here that feature the main elements of Colossal Cave Adventure: exploring an area, and earning points by collecting treasures. Acheton, Zork, and The Cottage all follow this format, as does the multiplayer MUD1. The main outliers to this format were Castle (which apparently predates Colossal Cave) and Aldebaran-III, both of which were created using the Wander programming language.  Aldebaran-III in particular is strong on setting and narrative, or at least it appears that way at the beginning. While the games that sprung out of Colossal Cave were the most influential in the short term, Aldebaran-III provides a glimpse into a future of adventure games more narratively sophisticated than simple treasure hunts.

It would be remiss of me not to single out MUD1 for special attention here, because it's the progenitor of a whole line of multiplayer games, and is influential in ways that go far beyond my meager knowledge of MUDs. As with Oubliette, it would be a real contender if there was still a community playing it today. It's still an enjoyable single-player experience, but obviously that's not its greatest strength.

It's quite a bit easier to pick the Mainframe Adventure Game of 1974-1978, though. While Colossal Cave Adventure is all-pervading in its influence, and Acheton is the largest and most challenging game, there's no denying the sheer quality of Zork. It has the highest score on the blog by a large margin (70), and holds up pretty well even today. A case could be made for it being the greatest adventure game of all time, and I wouldn't argue too much with anyone who had that opinion.

Mainframe Adventure Game of 1974-1978: Zork


In 1978 home computing finally became accessible with the advent of three computers: the TRS-80, the Apple II, and the Commodore PET. These machines were woefully under-powered compared to the mainframes I talked about above, and were quite incapable of recreating the types of games that could be found on PLATO. As such, there's a certain disunity of theme and style in the games of 1978.

In fact, there are just five games to consider here. Beneath Apple Manor has a lot of Rogue-like elements, with its randomised top-down dungeons containing monsters represented with ASCII characters. Space is very much based on the tabletop RPG Traveller.  It has a claim on being the first sci-fi CRPG, but it plays much more like a collection of mini-games than a traditional RPG. The third game is Dungeon Campaign, a fun but somewhat slight attempt to emulate the party-based play that's inherent to D&D. Devil's Dungeon is potentially endless, but the version I played was bugged and broken. Finally, there's Richard Garriott's DND1, or at least the recreations of it that were made as part of a competition from a few years ago. It's not really a home computer game, but in terms of gameplay and complexity it belongs in this category.

Obviously we're in the earliest days here, with the creators of these games still trying to figure out how to bring the tabletop RPG to home computers. There's very little sign here of influence from the mainframe games; that won't come for a while yet. It's interesting to see these early efforts, and the gaming lineages that might have been, but ultimately, with the exception of DND1, these games would have little influence on the genre as a whole.

The Home CRPG of 1978 is pretty obvious. Space, Devil's Dungeon and Dungeon Campaign hold little interest beyond an hour or so. DND1 is of great historical importance, but it's very difficult to detect any of Ultima's DNA in this primitive game. Instead, I have to give it to Beneath Apple Manor, which I enjoyed playing and could quite happily go back to right now.

Home CRPG of 1978: Beneath Apple Manor


The home computer market for adventure games in 1978 was largely dominated by the work of two men. Or rather, one man and one boy: Scott Adams and Greg Hassett.

Before Infocom arrived on the scene, Scott Adams and his company Adventure International were the leaders in the adventure game field. In 1978, he produced two games: Adventureland and Pirate Adventure. The first is an obvious attempt to recreated the experience of Colossal Cave Adventure on a home computer, albeit in a highly truncated form. Pirate Adventure stretches a bit in terms of genre, but still presents a treasure hunt as the main focus (but what else do you want from a pirate game?). Both are solid, enjoyable games.

By contrast, Greg Hassett was a thirteen year old kid, who was prolific in his output (probably because all he had to worry about was teenage kid stuff). He released three games in 1978: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, King Tut's Tomb, and The House of Seven Gables. These games were of varying quality, with House of Seven Gables obviously being the best. I have to give Hassett some credit for avoiding the fantasy genre that everyone else was seemingly obsessed with, but his games are somewhat lacking in polish. I mean, all the games of this era are lacking in polish, but Hassett's efforts don't measure up to those of Adams, at least at this point.

Of the games that remain, Lords of Karma is the best, a polished effort that tries to provide some extra interest with a focus on doing good deeds. In reality it's just another treasure hunt, but the idea was there. Treasure Hunt is an expansion of Hunt the Wumpus with some adventure game elements added in, and Quest might be the simplest adventure game I've ever played, with nothing more to do than choose cardinal directions to move in.

I'm tossing up between Adventureland and Lords of Karma for Home Adventure Game of 1978. Karma blends in some CRPG elements, which is the sort of thing I like, but I think that Adventureland is a bit stronger as an adventure game.

Home Adventure Game of 1978: Adventureland.

So that's it for 1978, wrapped up, done, dusted and disposed of. I'm not sure where I'm going next.  I'll probably create a page in the sidebar giving my schedule for the games of 1979, but I have to figure out what that schedule will be. I'll probably start with either Akalabeth or Temple of Apshai, but I'm still undecided.

1 comment:

  1. Aha! Excellent! For the longest time I couldn't leave comments on this blog for some reason. It was infuriating, especially when I wanted to leave comments on the MUD riddles! Anyway, whatever the problem was it seems to have gone away.

    I'm glad you went with Adventureland as the pick of the early microcomputer adventures. To me, it has a unique staccato atmosphere that in its way is just as effective as the much more verbose descriptions of Adventure and Zork. And the puzzles are mostly good and reasonable, too. I rate it the best of Adams's games, with the possible exception of The Count